Notes from the Field

Unemployed Youth in Maldives Turn to Gangs, Reveals New Report

November 7, 2012

The Maldives – a stretch of islands in the Indian Ocean – is mostly known for its sandy white beaches and crystal clear oceans. Not surprisingly, tourism is the largest contributor to the island chain’s GDP and drives this popular perception. However, despite its undeniable beauty, healthy GDP growth of more than 8 percent (one of the highest in Asia), and “middle-income” status, disparity and inequality is high and rising.

Unemployment levels are close to 24 percent, affecting the country’s youth (under the age of 25), who constitute over 60 percent of the total population, the most. Only about 36 percent of students graduate from secondary school, despite universal access to education. Drug use is growing and is described by those living in the capital of Malé and the islands as one of the biggest challenges the country faces. Compounded, these social and economic ills have been attributed to the rise in gangs and gang-related violence.

Realizing the imminent social, political, and economic dangers in the growth of gangs, The Asia Foundation supported a group of local researchers led by Dr. Aishath Ali Naaz to conduct the first in-depth study of gangs in the Maldives. Just launched, the study helps determine why people join gangs, and what could be done to curtail gang violence.

Through in-person interviews with over 150 gang members, the study reveals the diverse reasons people join gangs, including unemployment, a need to belong, a search for brotherhood and identity, drugs, desire for an affluent lifestyle, and bullying at school. The findings also suggest that due to high levels of domestic violence, divorce and broken homes, joining gangs has become a popular choice for Maldivian youth looking outside of traditional family structures for support and protection.

One gang member told us during an interview, “gangs are much better than my own family…they are there when I need them.” In conversation with one of the gangs held in a coffee shop in Malé, a gang member emphasized the brutality, vindictive, and revengeful nature of gangs: “You can’t compare us (Maldivian gangs) to the ones in the UK or to other countries. We are very different. Maldivian gang violence can be much more brutal and frequent, as this is a small community and people can’t hide in places for that long.”

Despite strong economic rankings in the Maldives, unemployment levels were found to be  a major factor that drives people into join gangs. Unemployment often results because of the difficulty getting hired once someone has a police record. In the Maldives, even a brief police detention for minor offences such as a traffic violation results in a five-year police record, and as one member explained, “a police record is easy to get and hard to get rid of.”

The study also finds that after the country’s graduation to middle-income status, members of the younger generation now aspire to more expensive lifestyles and higher social status and are increasingly finding avenues to prosperity by joining gangs. Gang members typically earn more than $600 a month, three times more than the minimum wage for a Maldivian. One of the main sources of these earnings is drug dealing, which also perpetuates gang rivalries and violence on the streets of Malé. One gang member interviewed said that “each gang wants its members to have more bikes, expensive jewellery, cars, the latest mobile phones; and will do anything to have those.”

So far, the study has already brought tangible improvements to some of the core issues raised by those interviewed. After sharing the study with the Maldives Police Commissioner, the Commissioner put in place a new policy that states that only offences tried through the court can have a police record attached to them.

The Asia Foundation is now exploring creating forums for gang members to discuss their grievances with the police on a regular basis. The Maldives Police Service is keen to engage because they believe the regular dialogues with gangs will serve to counter their growth and gang related violence in the country.. For long-term success, the key will be developing effective alternative pathways of employment for gang members through efforts like vocational education training. This will require close collaboration between the civil society, state, and private sector. The report has proven to be a useful tool for policymakers to better understand the serious threat of increased levels of gang activity in the Maldives. Ideally, this will help lead to the country’s youth realizing their full potential.

Gita Sabharwal is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Sri Lanka and Nabeel Salie is an international consultant working on the Foundation’s program in the Maldives. They can be reached at gsabharwal@asiafound.org and nabeel@anysphere.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

View all posts by Gita Sabharwal

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